The formula that Metroid established back in 1986 remains intact here: the maze-like levels filled with mindlessly aggressive enemies, the hidden abilities that help you unlock new paths, and the overweening sense of astral coldness.
The major new addition, though, is the E.M.M.I.: a deadly, panther-like breed of machine that patrols certain discrete areas of the planet. A marked contrast to those mindlessly aggressive enemies of traditional Metroid games, E.M.M.I.s will track and kill you on sight; although it’s possible to stun them with a well-timed button press, it’s such a tough action to pull off that, for large stretches of Metroid Dread, you’ll need to avoid them at all costs – should an E.M.M.I. get within striking distance, they’ll slaughter you with a single hit.
There are six of these critters stalking parts of ZDR (or seven if you count the one you spar with in an early tutorial), and they really add to Metroid Dread’s murky texture. The areas the E.M.M.I. patrol are clearly marked out, both visually and musically, and entering each one is enough to leave a knot tightening in your stomach. The E.M.M.I. are fast, but developer MercurySteam has blessed Samus with just enough speed and agility to jump and slide out of deadly situations – assuming your skills and reaction times are up to the task. There’s a certain thrill to running around an E.M.M.I. kill zone, keeping a few steps ahead of the patrolling exterminator, and perhaps sliding through a tight gap to safety, or performing a nimble wall jump to leap over an E.M.M.I.’s head and through the nearest exit.
These cat-and-mouse moments contrast nicely with the more typical Metroid stuff surrounding them: uncovering hidden routes, upgrading your weapons and abilities, and gradually learning more about the hostile planet you’ve wound up on. Dread’s developers have added plenty of variety to the style and look of the usual corridors and rooms: the cold mechanical look of early areas gradually gives way to flooded caves and even organic areas full of lush alien flora.
The labyrinthine map is studded with bosses, too, which change up the tempo once again. These are hulking, multi-stage affairs that can sometimes feel as though they take hours to kill. Still, MercurySteam has deftly straddled the line between approachability and old-school toughness here: bosses will punish poor reflexes or lack of memorisation brutally, and you’ll see the Game Over screen often during these encounters. But the game seldom puts you back more than a screen or two from the battle area, there are no lives or continues to speak of, and some bosses will yield extra energy capsules or missiles if you know how to prod them in just the right way.
For this writer, at least, the more formidable opponent in Metroid Dread is the map itself. ZDR’s world is a sprawling one, and it’s often easy to find yourself stuck in some darkened corner of it with no obvious idea where to go next. Revisiting areas is an expected staple of the Metroidvania, but there were times in Dread where I found myself heading back to old areas, not because I’d collected a new, boundary-expanding item, but because I was hunting around for hidden exits I might have missed.
With these frustrations, though, come satisfying pay-offs. There’s a quiet thrill to finally spotting the destructible blocks that hide a previously unexplored path. And more satisfying still: the occasional moments where you get to charge up an Omega Cannon, which you can then use to finally turn those horrifying E.M.M.I. into a smouldering pile of scrap, which in turn yields a new ability (seriously, the feeling of finally getting hold of the old Morph Ball skill is grin-inducing).
This is Metroid Dread’s essence, I think: it’s an action platformer that piles on the tension, and even the occasional sense of helplessness at times, before rewarding you with a cathartic, air-punching victory.
Metroid Dread’s animation is exquisitely detailed. It’s easy to zero in on the fluidity of Samus’ movement, but it’s the animation on the E.M.M.I. robots that’s worth picking out: every part of their sleek, feline bodies has been lovingly animated to create a palpable air of menace.
Tense, absorbing, satisfying: a side-scroller classily updated for the 21st century.
Genre: Metroidvania Format: Switch Developer: MercurySteam Publisher: Nintendo Price: £49.99 Release: Out now Social: @mercurysteam